Britons dress to impress at the Oscars

In a relatively quiet year for British cinema at the Oscars, the nation can still turn to that reliable standby, the best costume design award, for a little welling-up of patriotic pride. Four out of the last five winners have been British, and two of them – Sandy Powell and Michael O'Connor – are in the running this time. O'Connor is up for Jane Eyre, but the smart money is on Powell, for her work on Martin Scorsese's early-cinema fantasy Hugo.

Not only does Hugo have serious momentum as the leading nominated film with 11 mentions in total, but Powell, 51, has some claim to be the doyenne of international costume design: Hugo is her 10th Oscar nomination in a record that stretches back to Orlando in 1992. She has won three times: with Shakespeare in Love in 1999, The Aviator in 2005 and The Young Victoria in 2010. Along with Jenny Beavan (eight nominations, one win), Powell is the UK's main challenge to Hollywood's finest costume designers, the likes of Albert Wolsky and Colleen Atwood.

But where Beavan graduated from the corsets and sailor-suit school of Merchant Ivory films such as The Bostonians and A Room with a View, Powell cut her teeth in the scrappy art-punk world of Derek Jarman (her first feature credit was his 1986 film Caravaggio) and the low-budget politicised fables of Sally Potter (Powell designed a spectacular red dress for Potter's 1986 short, The London Story). And it was Potter's feature debut, Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton as Virginia Woolf's apparently immortal transgender writer, that first brought Powell international attention.

Potter is lavish in her praise of Powell's work on the film. "I was thrilled every day by what she was doing," she says.

"Making Orlando was a big adventure for all of us, but Sandy was brilliant.

"Much of the story was told through the clothes and the key thing was she was always able to keep the overview in mind, as well as having a wonderful eye for detail. Her control of colour was particularly strong."

Powell has come a long way from the make-do-and-mend aesthetics of her early years. She has a knack of allying herself with major auteurs – Hugo is her fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, which began with the 19th-century crime epic Gangs of New York in 2002.

Colin Vaines, an executive producer on Gangs, is as unstinting in his admiration of Powell's work as Potter. "She's just brilliant," he says. "What's great is that she has a flamboyance about her design, and that suited the film as Martin had a big operatic vision of it – something baroque but also authentic.

"She does a massive amount of research and a look came out of that. She has the mark of great designer – the clothes define the character."

Vaines also worked on Powell's most recent Oscar winner, The Young Victoria. "It was absolutely perfect: like Gangs, it was a mix of research and original touches."

Powell's high profile has undoubtedly been helped by the fact that the clothes have played a starring role in a number of her films. In Orlando, Tilda Swinton moved through history, shedding doublet for crinoline as she does so. Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven involved perfectly co-ordinated 1950s suburban chic, designed to harmonise with the autumnal tones of its Connecticut setting. The same director's Velvet Goldmine was an extended essay on 70s glam rock get-ups. And, back in 1992, The Crying Game literally revolved around a man in a dress.

Along with Jarman and Scorsese, The Crying Game's director, Neil Jordan, is the third longtime Powell collaborator: the first of their five films together, The Miracle, was in 1991. The Crying Game's producer, Stephen Woolley, is, like everyone else it seems, an admirer. "She was always thinking outside the box. She would not accept things should be done the standard 'industry' way – and that fitted in our left-of-field, alternative view," Woolley says.

"The costumes on The Crying Game had to work for the film to work. For most of his scenes, Jaye Davidson had to be ambiguous – you can't tell if he's a man or a woman. The best thing she did, you would never have got an award for. She sewed a couple of pads in his knickers, so he had a bit of a bum. To me that was genius."

It's fair to say that it was her Jordan films that established Powell in Hollywood: the middle act of her illustrious career. After the unexpected commercial success of The Crying Game, she took on Jordan's 1994 big-budget Interview with the Vampire, where she put Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas in eye-catching ruffles and gaudy capes.

Whether or not Powell wins her fourth Oscar on Sunday night, her punk-meets-baroque stylings have made an indelible mark on contemporary cinema. As Woolley says: "Whether the film is good, bad or indifferent, you'll always remember the costumes."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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